Actress Renee Taylor sat down at Nate 'n' Al's to interview a rabbi who was aspiring to produce her new play, "Golda."
"I don't know anything about producing," he told her.
"Great," said Taylor, who is best known for her role as Sylvia Fine on the TV series "The Nanny." "You're hired!"
"Golda" is a one-woman play Taylor wrote about the life of Golda Meir, and her new producer is Rabbi Shimon Kashani of the Southern California Jewish Center (SCJC). Kashani met Taylor at a gala dinner that he and his wife, Vered, organized last August to honor Israeli victims of terrorism who were visiting Los Angles. At the dinner, Taylor told him about the play she had written and, because of his interest in Israel, Kashani wanted to produce it. Taylor had a few other producers interested in the play, but she chose Kashani.
"He loves Israel and loves Golda," Taylor told The Journal. "Because of who the rabbi was and his passion for Israel, I thought he was the perfect person."
Taylor and her husband, Joe Bologna, helped Kashani in his new role as theater producer -- they guided him in finding the best lighting people, the best costume people and the best set designers. But for Kashani this was not just a chance to try out a new career. Rather, Kashani and his wife -- who is something of a Golda aficionado -- saw the play as another spoke in the outreach wheel that is the SCJC -- it would be an opportunity for them to educate the public about Israel.
"This is great publicity for Israel; it's a way to bring awareness about the positive aspects of Israel." Kashani said. "Golda Meir was the prime minister three decades ago, and in the Middle East today many women still don't have rights; they are still oppressed. All the publicity we are doing for this show brings Israel into people's minds."
Born in Iran, Kashani was raised in New York and educated in the Chabad school system in Brooklyn. He started coming to California to do Jewish outreach in 1986, and in 1992, he received a blessing from Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneersohn, the late Lubavitcher rebbe, to start his center. (SCJC is not formally affiliated with the Chabad movement in California.)
Started as a Hebrew school with 80 students and a synagogue, SCJC is based in Westwood and today is the umbrella organization for an ever-expanding number of programs. There is a day-care center, a summer camp, adult education classes, services for new immigrants (such as helping them find homes and jobs and aiding them through the immigration legalities) and an Orthodox rabbinical school. Kashani recently purchased a $2.8 million property in Westwood, where he plans to build a large synagogue and a day school for young boys. In addition, the Kashanis have dedicated themselves to bringing Israeli victims of terror to tour the United States. Last year, 22 came to Los Angeles, amid much media fanfare. This year, the Kashanis aim to bring more victims and tour with them in California, New York and Washington, D.C. -- and, if they can, to get them into the Oval Office to meet with the president -- to educate the public about the horror that the intifada has wreaked on ordinary Israelis.
But the beneficence does not stop at Jews; last Thanksgiving, Kashani teamed up with the 98th Street Community Youth Organization to donate turkeys and cars to families in South Central, and he sponsors a program that provides motor homes for homeless people in the Valley. He is also starting a foundation to promote peace and harmony through different religions. "It's not going to be an interfaith mingling type of situation where we tell everyone it's OK to intermarry and stuff," he said. "We just want for them to understand each other and appreciate and tolerate the different religions."
Kashani is an affable man with round charcoal eyes and a dark wispy beard, who is full of plans and ideas to make the world a better place. He wants to help the Israeli economy, give a Jewish education to all Jewish children and provide nonsectarian support to indigent members of the wider community. But when pressed for details of these plans, he often puts his head in his hand and -- if he can -- finds ways to not directly answer the questions. While he wants the press to be apprised of all that he does, he does not seem that comfortable tooting his own horn. However, he makes it clear that most of the services he provides to people are free. Although the center has a $4 million annual budget, it does not charge membership, and provides many scholarships for its camp and educational programs.
Kashani fundraises outside of his constituency and solicits tax-deductible car donations on the radio. He also has business interests on the side -- he holds an MBA from Loyola -- and funds some of the programs through his own money.
"What can I tell you?" he said. "This is my mission in life."
"Golda" plays through May 25 at the Canon Theatre, 209 N. Canon Drive., Beverly Hills, (310) 859-2830. For more information about the Southern California Jewish Center, call (800) 936-4673.